I thought he had a medical stutter. In the wordless eternity between his attempt at speech and the first discernible word, my beard grew a few extra millimeters. The bag checker at the grocery store in Cotui was speechless, but he finally managed to utter something about how I needed to get to a barber quickly. I thanked him and went to buy myself some chocolate cake so I could privately celebrate my 24th birthday. I had to come to terms with reality- I looked like a 40 year old homeless man. I might have taken things a bit far in “Beardvember 2012, Year of the Uncaged Wolf.” It had been a full ten weeks since I had taken any sharp objects towards my face to conform to this shaven society’s less than ideal hygienic expectations. The end result? I could hide a pen in my lion’s mane- the protective halo of fur that shielded me from mosquitos, sunburns, and rogue, green-card crazy Dominicana she-wolves. Yes, there were downsides to sporting this hairy masterpiece. Rather than being greeted with flattering titles such as “Engineer or the Licensed One”, for the past month my snickering neighbors had decided that I was Bin Laden. Apart from that, it was a tad difficult to consume food or drinks with out munching on the untrimmed mustache that curled around my upper lip. Worse, there was always the lingering possibility of being “botar-ed’ by kati. Regardless, the sacrifice was worth the prize- immortalization for an exceptional display of beard art with a 19th century mustache curl and a disgusting rat tail hanging off my chin. This year’s victory has given me the courage to attempt the full manchu in Beardvember 2013, and maybe even consider celebrating Byeard 2014. I truly thank you all for all of your support and sacrifice that has made this Beardvember one of the most memorable celebrations of testosterone that I can remember.
Now on to lighter matters. Construction on the combined Dos Palmas and Tres Bocas aqueduct will theoretically begin in mid to late January, assuming that the promised Rotary Club funding and donation from Barrick Gold arrive in December as promised. I keep expecting the boss to show up and say, – “Alright we purchased the pipes, we’re starting work next Monday- bring your work boots.” The boss isn’t showing up because the boss is me (yes, that freak you saw in the previous photos). I will be in charge of all of the project purchases, which will add up to a grand total of $30,000. Yikes. I hope I calculated the cost correctly. I will say when to buy the pipes, where to deliver them, and which ones we will bury first. I am organizing the work brigades, working out transport and food for the days when we are far away, and making sure everything comes together properly.
And if I fail? If I did my calculations incorrectly? If I’m incapable of managing the work brigades? If I get too homesick and abandon my mission and move back the United States early? There are around 1,000 people who do not get water. No, failure is not an option. I will succeed not because I can make the best design or be the most organized person, but rather because I am so personally invested in my work that leaving my post before these villages have water would betray the fabric of my purpose here. Failing would be high treason- not of the villages’ hopes, but rather of my own dreams- a crime for which the punishment is spiritual death. Failure would resign me to an unadventurous life with no confidence in myself and regrets for my unfulfilled promises to these villages.
Now I know what it means to love your job. It does not mean that your job makes you happy- it means that the words job, career, and work are inaccurate. It means you have a mission that you surround yourself with in your free time, but that never bogs you down. Knowing that I have a mission fills me with enthusiasm every day. I want to see my mission splayed out on my living room wall with an eight foot tall to scale map of the villages and technical design. Having a mission instead of a career is an addictive feeling, and the uncertainty regarding my mission beyond my Peace Corps service frightens me.
I need to fulfill my mission, but my personality has never been suited for managerial leadership. I am a passionate person, and people follow passion, but punctuality, long-term planning, attendance at meetings, and disciplinary action have never been my strong points in leadership. My first meeting with the water committee of Tres Bocas was therefore shocking when my 5:00PM meeting started exactly at 5:00PM (not 5:01. It was 5 on the dot) with only one person missing. It was a miracle that I can only attribute to a new attitude that I was sporting in Tres Bocas. I told their water committee very sternly that it is considered very rude in my country to show up late to meetings. I told them that if they can’t do that for me, there is no problem at all, then we will simply find people who can perform the duties required of them.
The image you let the world see of yourself is tremendously important when it comes to your work. I don’t like being a strict person. I want to be the fun loving person who detaches people from their worries in stressful times. I want to equalize the world with laughter and stop people from acting too seriously when they need to relax. I’m exceedingly lenient, flexible, and sympathetic from virtually any angle you look at me, which are all personality flaws for a boss. I hate being a disciplinarian because I like to think of people as just being people, not as a malfunctioning tool that I need to manipulate to make more efficient.
Some cultural battles can not be won, regardless of your attitude. My Dos Palmas community meeting with 161 houses had only 30-40 people in attendance. Ideally, we would have 161 people in attendance and everyone could listen to one single reading of the user contract and then they would sign it afterwards. Instead, I broke the village up into seven sectors and gave seven meetings over the course of five days. Attendance was much higher, and I felt like people really understood the content of the meetings. In the end, we had 92 contracts signed and I had 15 people on each work brigade, Monday through Friday. We still had 27 houses not included in the system, mainly because those home owners lived in the capital. I estimate that there are around 42 other houses in the community that want water but did not come to the meetings because they were not home, or simply because they were lazy. There are certain households that I have personally invited to small neighborhood meetings on several occasions, but they give some excuse why they can’t come and just sit outside their house, within eyesight of the meeting, and do not come. When several households pulled this stunt after I went through the trouble of dividing a single community meeting into seven smaller ones- I was beyond frustrated- I was actually angry.
My new philosophy on the matter is that for the 42 households that did not participate in the meetings, they must now come to my house and choose a work day and sign the contract. If they don’t do this simple task, how can I expect that they will show up to work. They will suffer from their ignorance, and several of them will incur financial penalties as a result. I am sure some of the houses that didn’t come to the meetings will not participate in the construction and then be surprised when they are not given water.
Every time a household drops out of the system I feel extremely sad. The worst is when they drop out over a simple water quota. I lost one guy last week who would not agree to pay an ongoing monthly water bill. He would pay any price one time, but after that- his money was his money. I felt awful. He will have money and an angry wife who has to carry him buckets of water from the river when all of his neighbors have tap water.
My social life in Cotui is booming. Tal, Jeni, and I just received three other Peace Corps business volunteers around the Cotui area, one of whom is only 20 minutes away from me along the main road to Cotui. We also have just begun to get friendly with two Canadian interns from an environmental non-profit called Enda Caribe. My relationship with these Canadians is growing very fast. Only after my second meeting with them I felt confident enough to make Canada jokes with them. They will be true friends, and will be with us for another couple of months. The Canadians put us in touch with two Korean volunteers from Koika, which is essentially Korea’s Peace Corps. Koika follows Peace Corps model, and puts over 2,000 Korean volunteers around the world in over 30 countries, two years for each tour. I realized after talking with one Korean volunteer in Spanish that I felt like a citizen of the world. We were from two different countries, both speaking in our second language to communicate. After speaking with one of the Koreans, I felt a special connection to them. We were united not because we had the same culture, but rather because we were both outsiders and not part of Dominican culture. We both volunteered to abandon our culture, language, and comfort to accept a mission.